Lee on Dunbar-Ortiz, 'Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975'

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Choonib Lee

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014. 396 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8061-4537-2.

Reviewed by Choonib Lee (Dong-A University) Published on H-1960s (November, 2015) Commissioned by Zachary Lechner

A Radical Woman at War

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz was a pioneer and founder of a radical and militant feminist group in the Boston area. She was among the many women who were active in social movements and began forming groups for women’s liberation all over the country in the late 1960s and 1970s, a phenomenon now known as “second-wave” feminism. The history of the women’s liberation movement, however, has been dichotomized into feminist and other radical movements. Negative connotations and ridiculous accounts, such as the notorious label of “bra burners,” have largely distorted the history of 1960s feminists and reduced dynamic and multiple feminist movements to a single kind of feminism: liberation for white middle-class women, solely focused on gender.[1] Dunbar-Ortiz’s newly revised memoir, Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975, demythologizes the stereotype. It contributes pivotal accounts of the multiplexed and intersecting moments and experiences of radical women to the history of women’s liberation and other social movements, interconnecting and encompassing gender, race, class, and many other categories of difference.

The stories Dunbar-Ortiz tells in this memoir, therefore, echo those of other radical feminists like Robin Morgan who rejected male-dominated movements and organized feminist actions (e.g., the 1968 Miss America Pageant protest). Dunbar-Ortiz, like most white middle-class feminists, thought that patriarchy was the dominant problem for women, leading them to focus largely on gender issues. Dunbar-Ortiz is, however, distinctive in terms of her background, and relates in this memoir not a standard, but rather a very unique feminist and revolutionary history.

Growing up part Native American in a poor, rural area of Oklahoma, as shown in her previous memoir Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (2006), she transformed from a typical wife and mother into a revolutionary feminist in the late 1960s. When she was twenty-one years old in 1960, she left Oklahoma for San Francisco with her then-husband, a move that would eventually allow her to become independent as an academic, a feminist, and a revolutionary. Leaving Oklahoma meant liberation from poverty, hatred, and racism, as well as from her alcoholic and abusive mother. This memoir starts with this new chapter of her life, chronicling her search for freedom and independence. After moving to California, she pursued her education while still a housewife and mother.

Against the backdrop of her involvement with the various resistance groups of the Sixties, Dunbar-Ortiz recounts two major events that completely changed her life and led her to assuming a prominent place in the women’s liberation movement. Reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in 1963 was the first, and subsequently caused her to leave her husband and daughter and devote herself to political and academic work, which she recalls as “a political move” (p. 374). The second event was Valerie Solanas’s attempt to assassinate pop artist Andy Warhol in his studio in New York City on June 3, 1968.[2] Dunbar-Ortiz felt the enormous wave coming and thought that she must join the movement for women’s liberation, knowing that “women would rise up massively in the United States,” and that she didn’t want to “miss that delicious, exciting, formative time. I wanted to be a part of it; I had to be part of it” (p. 118). Dunbar-Ortiz was right. The women’s liberation movement emerged rapidly in the late 1960s. As part of the wave, Dunbar-Ortiz moved to Boston and formed Cell 16 in August 1968, which promoted the study of Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto and published the feminist journal No More Fun and Games: A Journal of Female Liberation.

Educated young women like Dunbar-Ortiz became aware of the injustices of poverty, racism, and the war in Vietnam in the so-called democratic society of the United States throughout the 1960s. Civil rights movements politically motivated baby boomers—now also known as the Sixties generation—to get involved in social activism against racism in general and white racist terror more specifically. Experiences in these movements often led to the political radicalization of young men and women.The Black Panther Party grew popular and became notorious for its self-defense principles, such as armed patrols, especially in Oakland, California. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, the shock and frustration led Dunbar-Ortiz to cut her long hair, and so the “last vestiges of my glamorous mask of traditional femininity vanished and I looked like a fourteen-year-old boy” (p. 114).[3] During the revolutionary year of 1968, massive antiwar movements were at their peak, gathering and unifying various groups of people from across the globe against the war in Vietnam.

Although the efforts of the early women’s liberation movements in the late 1960s bore fruit and the popularity of Dunbar-Ortiz as a leader also grew, she sought paths to carry out her feminist politics that were dissimilar to those of most radical feminists. Her distinctive background and ideas essentially and gradually permeated her feminism and radical activism. In spite of her growing fame as a feminist, rather than focusing only on largely white, middle-class-centered women’s liberation, as a Marxist, Dunbar-Ortiz drew on Marxism and constantly tried to associate the women’s liberation movement—what she called a “female revolution”—with other antiracist, anticapitalist, and anti-imperialist visions.[4] One of the most remarkable aspects of her Boston group was its development of self-defense ideas. Like the Black Panthers and many other ethnic movements, Cell 16 members learned martial arts and patrolled the streets to protect women from danger. She writes, “I began thinking of Tae Kwon Do as a metaphor for revolution” (p. 148).

For historians like myself, Outlaw Woman reveals hidden stories and voices of a turbulent era. The most intriguing part of this memoir for me is that Dunbar-Ortiz presents herself as a radical woman with an “outlaw identity,” because that identity is inhabited primarily by men in most histories of radicalism during the late 1960s and 1970s. Dunbar-Ortiz constantly reminds us of her outlaw identity. For her, her family background embodies the outlaw identity, especially her Wobbly-socialist grandfather and her working-class family, which she left Oklahoma to escape from in order to find her “self-determined subject” (p. 374). In becoming a feminist and revolutionary, as well as a scholar, she maintained the heritage of her outlaw position through her political ideas, in the tradition of other notorious female outlaws like Bonnie Parker, Mother Jones, Black Panthers, and many other radicals.

The climax of the memoir comes in the chapters “Revolution in the Air” and “Cuba Libre,” when Dunbar-Ortiz explains how she found herself once again cast as the outlaw when FBI surveillance forced her to take her activism underground. Dunbar-Ortiz joined the third Venceremos Brigade to Cuba in the summer of 1970. After two months in Cuba, her commitment to a revolution became more radicalized, and law enforcement agencies like the FBI infiltrated her group, which made her think that an underground movement was inevitable in order to continue her political work. As a political fugitive living underground, Dunbar-Ortiz did not engage in major illegal acts like the Weatherwomen, who bombed governmental buildings. She suffered, meanwhile, from an abusive relationship with her partner and her own alcoholic habits.

Outlaw Woman is neither nostalgic nor apologetic. Dunbar-Ortiz does not try to make up for her own mistakes or “varnish” what she did in her twenties and early thirties. As a “historian and a historical actor,” her frankness and straightforwardness in writing this memoir uncover sometimes painful truths, like “the contradictions between my search for male partners as guides and my developing feminist consciousness,” as well as her own struggles with alcoholism (p. 380). Nevertheless, I found that her narratives fail to convey the pain and emotion of her transformations, which might be a disadvantage for those who want to know how she dealt with the conflicts between her personal and political lives. More importantly, her story of the Sixties reveals the feminist moment of her life as the “happiest and most satisfying,” but one that declined, she admits, as a result of “some very unwise choices” and “the spell of guns” regarding the armed struggles of the early 1970s. This tendency to understand the Sixties era in terms of the successes of feminism and the failures of the more militant movements is consistent with most memoirs and historical accounts of the second wave. Reading Outlaw Woman is critical and instructive for people who seek accounts of the complex and specific roles played by women in the revolutionary era.


[1]. Many radical men, especially SDS men, burned their draft cards in protest against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. The media created the image of the feminist demonstrations like the protest against the Miss America Pageant in 1968—the first national action by second-wave feminists—as silly and ridiculous acts that seemed a mockery of those more serious leftist movements, although those women never burned anything at the protest.

[2]. Solanas’s shooting of Warhol in retaliation for male artist’s manipulation and patriarchal power inspired many radical feminists. Black radical feminist and early member of the NOW Flo Kennedy acclaimed Solanas as the “most important spokeswomen of the feminist movement” and Ti-Grace Atkinson also supported Solanas as the “first outstanding champion of women’s rights.” Avital Ronell, introduction to SCUM Manifesto (New York: Verso, 2004), 10.

[3]. On cover of this revised memoir, there are three different photos that indicate Dunbar-Ortiz’s multiple identities and the dramatic changes in her appearance from the late 1960s to early 1970s, from a young, pretty, long-haired girl to a full-time revolutionary and outlaw: “The one on the left is my first passport picture, taken in June, 1967, while I was a doctoral student and teaching assistant at UCLA. The middle one is my ID picture for the 3rd Venceremos Brigade to Cuba in September 1970.... The third is a year later, in 1971, as we were planning to go underground.” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, e-mail to author, October 15, 2015.

[4]. Unlike Dunbar-Ortiz, many women, especially SDS women and politicos, favored the term “women’s liberation” over “feminism” as a way to bond with Third World liberationist movements. Victoria Hesford, Feeling Women's Liberation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 54.

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Citation: Choonib Lee. Review of Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne, Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975. H-1960s, H-Net Reviews. November, 2015. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=43141

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